Genesis Chapter 38: Sin of Onan, Tamar Plays the Harlot with Judah

Mar 10th, 2010 | By | Category: Genesis, Verse by Verse --Studies led by Br. Frank Shallieu (Click on Book name)

Genesis Chapter 38: Sin of Onan, Tamar Plays the Harlot with Judah

Gen. 38:1 And it came to pass at that time, that Judah went down from his brethren, and turned in to a certain Adullamite, whose name was Hirah.

Just as Dinah did earlier, Judah wandered from his home territory and subsequently got into problems. He departed from his brethren and associated with Hirah, an Adullamite.

Gen. 38:2 And Judah saw there a daughter of a certain Canaanite, whose name was Shuah; and he took her, and went in unto her.

In that area, Judah saw Shuah, a Canaanite, and married her.

Gen. 38:3 And she conceived, and bare a son; and he called his name Er.

Gen. 38:4 And she conceived again, and bare a son; and she called his name Onan.

Gen. 38:5 And she yet again conceived, and bare a son; and called his name Shelah: and he was at Chezib, when she bare him.

Shuah bore three sons to Judah: Er, Onan, and Shelah. The English word “err,” or “error,” was possibly derived from the name Er because of his evil actions (verse 7).

Gen. 38:6 And Judah took a wife for Er his firstborn, whose name was Tamar.

Judah selected a wife for Er, his firstborn, and her name was Tamar. (We find out later that she was righteous in spite of what happens.)

Gen. 38:7 And Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the LORD; and the LORD slew him.

Er was wicked in God’s sight—so wicked, in fact, that God, in His providence, saw to it that Er was slain.

Gen. 38:8 And Judah said unto Onan, Go in unto thy brother’s wife, and marry her, and raise up seed to thy brother.

It was the custom at this time (and later part of the Law) that if a husband died leaving his wife childless, the next brother had to marry the widow so that a child would be born to her. To preserve the lineage, the son would bear the name of the deceased. According to this custom, Judah instructed Onan to marry Tamar to “raise up seed to thy brother” Er.

Gen. 38:9 And Onan knew that the seed should not be his; and it came to pass, when he went in unto his brother’s wife, that he spilled it on the ground, lest that he should give seed to his brother.

But Onan also did wickedly. The purpose of the marriage was to raise up seed in his brother’s name, but Onan disobeyed, knowing that if he had a child, the birthright would be in the name of his deceased brother. And if this was the firstborn son of Onan, that child, now bearing his brother’s name, would end up in a more favorable position than any son bearing his own name.

This was Messiah’s lineage, and because Er was not worthy, the whole matter was overruled, as we will see. It would not be appropriate for a child bearing Er’s name to be in Messiah’s lineage.

Onan spilled his seed on the ground. Today we have contraceptives, which prevent fertility in a woman, but Onan practiced the natural contraceptive method that was used for thousands of years. What displeased the Lord was not the spilling of the seed, but the refusal to give Tamar the pleasure of having a child.

According to Roman Catholic teaching, it is a sin to use contraceptives, and this prohibition is based on the sin of Onan, the spilling of his seed. What is not considered is that he was supposed to raise up a son in his brother’s name.

Judah may not be an Ancient Worthy. If not, another Ancient Worthy will be appointed head of the lineage of that tribe. We should observe the good and the bad character traits of those in the Bible. Reuben wanted to spare Joseph’s life and return him to his father. Later Judah made a suggestion not to slay Joseph, but he was willing to see him sold as a slave into Egypt. Judah thought that was a way out whereby the brothers would not be guilty personally of actually slaying Joseph. Then they could fake the matter by putting blood on Joseph’s garment.

Reuben’s attitude was far more commendable, whereas Judah was a compromiser.

Gen. 38:10 And the thing which he did displeased the LORD: wherefore he slew him also.

Onan displeased the Lord, so God saw to it that he was disposed of in some way. That left only the third son, Shelah.

Gen. 38:11 Then said Judah to Tamar his daughter-in-law, Remain a widow at thy father’s house, till Shelah my son be grown: for he said, Lest peradventure he die also, as his brethren did. And Tamar went and dwelt in her father’s house.

Judah told Tamar to remain a widow in her father’s house until Shelah had grown up enough to marry her and raise up seed, “lest peradventure he die also, as his [two elder] brethren did.”

Judah was saying that there would be no delay once Shelah had matured. Hence he made a double promise to Tamar: (1) to give Shelah as her husband and (2) to do so promptly when Shelah was old enough. Judah was a patriarch, so his promise to Tamar was like an oath. Even in early Colonial days in this country, just shaking hands on an agreement was binding. Today a lawyer has to word the contract.

Q: Did Tamar now have to raise up a son to both Er and Onan?

A: That would be a legal problem. When a son was born, would it be reckoned of Er or of Onan? God solved this problem in a very ingenious way, as we will see.

Gen. 38:12 And in process of time the daughter of Shuah Judah’s wife died; and Judah was comforted, and went up unto his sheepshearers to Timnath, he and his friend Hirah the Adullamite.

Time passed, and Judah procrastinated in his promise to Tamar. When his wife died, he went to his sheepshearers in Timnath. There he wept with his friend Hirah, the Adullamite.

Gen. 38:13 And it was told Tamar, saying, Behold thy father-in-law goeth up to Timnath to shear his sheep.

Gen. 38:14 And she put her widow’s garments off from her, and covered her with a veil, and wrapped herself, and sat in an open place, which is by the way to Timnath; for she saw that Shelah was grown, and she was not given unto him to wife.

Tamar was told that Judah, her father-in-law, was coming. She had been wearing widow’s garments all this time, having remained unmarried and childless, waiting for Shelah. Genesis  3:15 promises that the seed of woman will bruise the serpent’s head. Therefore, the mothers of Israel were always hoping the Messiah would come through them. It was very meaningful for a woman not just to have a son but to hope that she might be chosen for this honor.The Scriptures do not criticize Tamar, yet here, because of the circumstances, she decided to play the harlot to Judah. She disguised herself by putting a veil over her face and positioned herself strategically so that Judah would pass by. She took this action because “Shelah was grown, and she was not given unto him to wife.”

Gen. 38:15 When Judah saw her, he thought her to be an harlot; because she had covered her face.

Of course Judah did not know the harlot was Tamar, his daughter-in-law.

Gen. 38:16 And he turned unto her by the way, and said, Go to, I pray thee, let me come in unto thee; (for he knew not that she was his daughter-in-law.) And she said, What wilt thou give me, that thou mayest come in unto me?

Gen. 38:17 And he said, I will send thee a kid from the flock. And she said, Wilt thou give me a pledge, till thou send it?

Gen. 38:18 And he said, What pledge shall I give thee? And she said, Thy signet, and thy bracelets, and thy staff that is in thine hand. And he gave it her, and came in unto her, and she conceived by him.

Judah succumbed. We begin to see a little of his character here, for he was not righteous in what he was doing. He requested to be intimate with this woman.

Tamar was clever, and rightly so. She said, “I want some token for giving my services.” Judah offered her a young goat (“a kid of the goats”—see King James margin), but she asked for a personal pledge until Judah could send the goat; that is, she wanted something she could later show him and say, “These items are your signet ring, bracelets, and staff.” Judah gave her what she asked, even though a staff was personal and custom-made. The understanding was that as soon as she received the goat, she would return Judah’s personal items. Tamar conceived when Judah went in unto her.

Gen. 38:19 And she arose, and went away, and laid by her veil from her, and put on the garments of her widowhood.

Tamar went away, removed the veil, and again put on her widow’s garments.

Gen. 38:20 And Judah sent the kid by the hand of his friend the Adullamite, to receive his pledge from the woman’s hand: but he found her not.

Gen. 38:21 Then he asked the men of that place, saying, Where is the harlot, that was openly by the way side? And they said, There was no harlot in this place.

Gen. 38:22 And he returned to Judah, and said, I cannot find her; and also the men of the place said, that there was no harlot in this place.

Gen. 38:23 And Judah said, Let her take it to her, lest we be shamed: behold, I sent this kid, and thou hast not found her.

Judah sent the kid of the goats through his friend Hirah, the Adullamite. But Hirah could not find the “harlot,” and when he inquired, he was told, “There was no harlot in this place.” When he reported back, Judah said, “Let her keep the personal items of mine lest we be shamed.”

Gen. 38:24 And it came to pass about three months after, that it was told Judah, saying, Tamar thy daughter-in-law hath played the harlot; and also, behold, she is with child by whoredom. And Judah said, Bring her forth, and let her be burnt.

For the next three months, Tamar was back living with her father. Then word came to Judah that Tamar had played the harlot and was pregnant. Judah’s reaction was, “Let her be burnt.” He was righteously indignant. “To be burnt” meant that the person was first slain and then the body was burned. It is true that Tamar had played the harlot—but with a purpose in mind based upon Judah’s negligence and/or failure to give what was legitimately hers.

Gen. 38:25 When she was brought forth, she sent to her father-in-law, saying, By the man, whose these are, am I with child: and she said, Discern, I pray thee, whose are these, the signet, and bracelets, and staff.

When Tamar was confronted, she sent word to Judah, “By the man, whose these [signet ring, bracelets, and staff] are, am I with child.”

Gen. 38:26 And Judah acknowledged them, and said, She hath been more righteous than I; because that I gave her not to Shelah my son. And he knew her again no more.

Judah acknowledged that the items were his, and then he realized in a flash what had happened—and that he was the guiltier one for not fulfilling his promise. “She hath been more righteous than I; because that I gave her not to Shelah my son.” By the mouth of two or three witnesses is a thing established (Deut. 17:6; 19:15; Matt. 18:16). Tamar had three witnesses: the signet ring, the bracelets, and the staff.

Judah was ashamed that he was responsible for Tamar’s condition, and so she was not put to death. He conceded that she was the more righteous, even though she had played the harlot.

The whole circumstance was predicated upon his failure to provide her with a husband. Was she to go childless all her life when marriage was a family arrangement? Should she be condemned to widowhood for the rest of her life? We know that from God’s standpoint, Tamar was justified in what she had done because she is in Jesus’ lineage, which traces Judah (Tamar) and Pharez (Matt. 1:3; Luke 3:33).

Gen. 38:27 And it came to pass in the time of her travail, that, behold, twins were in her womb.

Gen. 38:28 And it came to pass, when she travailed, that the one put out his hand: and the midwife took and bound upon his hand a scarlet thread, saying, This came out first.

Gen. 38:29 And it came to pass, as he drew back his hand, that, behold, his brother came out: and she said, How hast thou broken forth? this breach be upon thee: therefore his name was called Pharez.

Gen. 38:30 And afterward came out his brother, that had the scarlet thread upon his hand: and his name was called Zerah.

Tamar’s children, twins, were of Judah, not of any of his three sons (Er, Onan, or Shelah). Er and Onan died, and Shelah was bypassed. The twins were named Pharez (or Peres) and Zerah.

Pharez signifies “breach, division.” Peres means “your kingdom is divided.” There is a similarity here with Jacob and Esau, where the seemingly younger twin supplanted the older twin, although in the case of Pharez and Zerah, the supplanting literally happened at the time of birth. Incidentally, if any of us traced our lineage back far enough, we would find some unsavory individuals in it.

The women in Israel each hoped to have the honor of bearing Messiah. Women are very important in the lineage. Certain ones are explicitly referred to by Matthew: Tamar, Ruth the Moabitess, and Rahab the harlot. Ruth was a proselyte Jew—a Jew by faith. Rahab forsook her former way of life and was more honorable than the whole city, for she hid the two Israelite spies at the risk of her own life. And she had faith in the God who had delivered the Israelites through the Red Sea dry-shod.

It was comforting to Judah to have two sons through Tamar to replace Er and Onan. However, the sons were also a reminder of his failure. Had Tamar not played the harlot, he would not have fulfilled his promise, and she would have had permanent widowhood. God overruled the situation with the two deceased sons, for now the lineage traced back to Judah, who was the father of Tamar’s children.

Comment: One lesson is how careful we should be in our words and actions (or even our failure to speak or act), for if we lead another astray into a sin, we bear some of the responsibility, just like Judah. By his neglect, he led Tamar into a sin, for which she was forgiven, while he bore the brunt of the guilt.

The Bible gives us the unvarnished history with the weak as well as the strong points of individuals. We can understand why God honors certain ones. For example, David sinned but was honored because he publicly confessed his sin to the whole nation in the Psalms.

(1987–1989 Study)

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